Kenya Election

30 December 2002

Kenya: “Without Moi, Everything Is Possible”

By Gwynne Dyer

The great philosopher Pete Townshend once summarised his exploration of how politics really works with the famous hrase: “Meet the new boss; same as the old boss.” Have 30 million Kenyans been fooled again?

At first glance, it certainly looks like it. Mwai Kibaki, who won the presidential election last Friday by a two-to-one majority, is personally clean, but many of the key people around him are the former cronies and henchmen of outgoing president Daniel arap Moi, the man whose 24 years in power earned Kenya its place in Transparency International’s top five most corrupt countries in the world.

The slogan of Kibaki’s National Rainbow Coalition (Narc) was “Without Moi, Everything Is Possible,” and that was exactly what desperate Kenyans wanted to believe. Kenyans of every tribe and class were fed up with the bandit politicians who had vandalised their economy and ruined their lives, and most Kenyans were delighted when Narc’s victory was confirmed on Sunday. But the awkward fact is that Kibaki couldn’t have won without an avalanche of last-minute defectors from Moi’s ruling party.

It all unravelled very fast for Moi, who seemed fully in control of the succession as late as last July. Moi took power on the death of national hero Jomo Kenyatta, who led Kenya to independence in 1963, and ruled the country in the classic African ‘big man’ style for 24 years until last week. Those who played along with him got very rich; those who opposed him were bankrupted, driven into exile, or even killed. And ordinary people just got poorer.

In 1971, when Kenyatta was still president, Kenya’s economic indicators were about the same as Singapore’s. Now, the average Singaporean earns fourteen times as much as the average Kenyan, whose income is actually about a fifth less than it was in 1971. Yet Kenya is a big, resource-rich country with a relatively well-educated population. Only brazen corruption on the most spectacular scale could have brought it so low so fast, but Moi and his cronies provided it.

Moi’s troubles began with the end of the Cold War, which brought pressures on one-party systems everywhere to democratise. In Kenya there was also a strong internal demand for democracy, so in 1991 Moi was forced to let other parties form and to promise free elections — at which point Kibaki, who had been finance minister for thirteen years and then vice-president for ten, resigned from the ruling party, the Kenya African National Union (Kanu), and formed the first serious opposition party. His democratic credentials are impeccable, but until recently he was a marginal figure and a failure.

Moi won the 1992 and 1997 elections by manipulating tribal rivalries (over 3,000 people were killed in politically motivated ethnic violence in the two elections) and by straight bribery. Indeed, the scams and rip-offs by Kanu politicians and officials grew even bigger and bolder in the 90s, as money was now needed for buying elections in addition to the normal nest-feathering purposes. It got so bad that foreign aid donors froze the annual $500 million that they gave to Kenya; it would just be stolen by government ministers if they sent it.

What tripped Moi up was the constitutional provision banning him from seeking another term. His plan was to ensure that power passed to a reliable successor: just as he had ensured that nobody ever inquired into how the late Jomo Kenyatta’s family got so incredibly rich, so he would pass power on to somebody who would block inquiries into the origins of his own vast wealth. And who better than Kenyatta’s 42-year-old son Uhuru? One good turn deserves another.

It was a blunder of historic proportions: in reaching down a full generation to pick Uhuru Kenyatta as his successor, Moi made the fatal mistake of alienating his partners-in-crime of his own generation. The first to bail out, in August, was Vice-President George Saitoti, a man deeply implicated in the regime’s corrupt dealings, but others of the same ilk followed rapidly.

Mwai Kibaki, who had been waging a lonely battle against the Kanu machine for a decade, saw his opportunity and invited the Kanu defectors to join him in the National Rainbow Coalition. They did, and together they have won. But that is the problem: some of the most accomplished thieves in the country are leading members of the winning coalition, and will require the reward of a cabinet post in which they can resume stealing from the Kenyan people.

When they asked George Saitoti what was the coalition’s policy on chasing down the crimes of the past, he replied: “We will not be driven by retribution” as well he might, given that he was a leading figure himself in the massive Goldenberg scam of the early 90s, which defrauded the Kenyan state of almost half a billion dollars. So have the Kenyans really been fooled again?

Maybe not. They voted for the least bad option, and despite the presence of so many crooks in Narc, it IS different. Kibaki has promised that his first moves will be to pass two anti-corruption laws that were blocked by Moi and to enact a new constitution that breaks the dictatorial powers of the presidency. He has promised to stand down at the next election, and Uhuru Kenyatta, who is not personally corrupt either, is now the leader of the Kanu opposition. Moreover, and most importantly, Kenya has a vigorous free press. There is still hope.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 5. (“The”; and “In 1971…provided it”)